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Henry Moore and the Oval Points


This project for the Princetoniana Committee started with an idea to find some connection between Princeton University and the UK. Since the project was to be placed in the Princetoniana’s online Museum, the idea to concentrate on art seemed like a logical approach. Hence this essay is about the English sculptor Henry Moore and his Oval with Points that has been a prominent presence on the Princeton Campus from the time it was installed in 1969.

The research is based on a visit to Henry Moore’s Studios and Gardens in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, southern England. Moore’s estate of 70 acres of rolling fields and wandering sheep contains 20 of his famous sculptures plus Moore’s home, Hoglands, where he had lived with his wife and daughter since 1940. In addition there is Henry Moore’s Archive and six studios documenting various elements of Moore’s creative practice including his carving, drawing, printmaking and his plaster maquettes. (Photography unfortunately was not permitted inside the house).

Finally the exhibition space for ‘Henry Moore: The Sixties, curated by the Henry Moore Foundation, is on display.

Marina Murvanidze Mitchell *98
London, 2022

Site and Grounds

A Visual Tour of the Site and Grounds

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Studio Tour

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Exhibition Space

Exhibition space

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Oval with Points and what inspired it

Great works of art, no matter how old, always offer a new perspective and a new view. They always have a life of their own.

Oval with Points is this kind of art. Every time you look at it, whether on campus in Princeton or at a twin on the grounds of Moore’s home estate, you discover something new and try to understand it all over again. Moore did not want his audience to look at his art and understand it right away. He wanted people to walk around his sculpture, touch it, sit on it, interact with it, look at it from every angle, look at the space it creates, and see only what each individual person would see.

Oval at distance

That is why for each viewer it could be just a number eight, a doughnut or something else.


Perhaps a human profile with a nose and a hollow cheek with a high cheekbone.

Moore 1

Woman's back

For this researcher it is a number of things: a delicate shape of a maiden a looking at her child created by a negative space within the massive rounded outer forms of the bronze pulling towards each other with indiscernible power, yet leaving the gap that creates the delicate neck of the woman separating tilted head from the torso; a torso of a woman’s back and a hip;

Moore -2

Moore 54

two birds ready to attack each other; and two seals kissing each other.

Before its creation, Henry Moore, who was inspired by the land, nature and the human body, particularly female, wrote, “The sculpture that moves me most is full blooded and self supporting, fully in the round, that is, its component forms are completely realised and work as masses in opposition, not being merely indicated by surface cutting in relief; it is perfectly symmetrical, it is static, and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains. It has a life of its own, independent of the object it represents.”1 It almost sounds as if he was describing the Oval with Points that would come to life 30 years later, one of the first sculptures installed on any campus according to Allen Rosenbaum, former director of the Art Museum at Princeton.

The story of the Oval with Points at Princeton started in 1968 when Princeton University received a gift of one million dollars from an anonymous donor in the name and memory of John B. Putnam Jr '45, who was a sophomore at Princeton when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. Lieutenant Putman was killed on July 19, 1944, at the age of 23 while on duty in England after completing 53 combat missions, including nine combat hours over Normandy on the D-Day. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for extraordinary achievement and heroism in aerial combat” as well as the Air Medal with six silver leaf clusters.

The purpose of the gift was to acquire modern sculptures for the University campus from established as well as emerging artists.

The selection committee for the Putnam Collection was comprised of Princeton alumni who played significant roles in the art world at the time: 1) Alfred Barr Jr’ 22, director of the Museum of Modern Art (who became the first director of MoMA at the age of 27); 2) Thomas Hoving ’53 *59, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3) William Milliken ’11, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art; and 4) Patrick J. Kelleher, the director of the Princeton University Art Museum and a professor in the University's Department of Art and Archaeology.

According to the suggestion from the donor, the sculptures were to be placed not in the museum or sculpture garden, but outdoors for the students and the community to interact with them on a daily basis. English artist Henry Moore looked to be an obvious choice as he was creating his sculptures specifically to be installed outdoors in the landscape. 2

Moreover Henry Moore enjoyed a reputation at that time as one of the greatest sculptors alive. Alastair Gordon, art critic, wrote of Henry Moore in 1961, “it is difficult for us in Britain to understand…just how much Moore is revered abroad: he is considered quite simply as the greatest living sculptor.”

No other British sculptor had received this recognition before. Henry Moore was known for prompting a British sculptural renaissance and became an international star while still alive.

Moore revolutionized the approach of creating a sculpture. He would not start his work by looking at the model, for example, but rather he would look at the stone, as he was not trying “to make a woman of stone but a stone that suggests a woman.”3

In addition, Moore took the sculptures ‘away from the wall,’ as his daughter Mary Moore said, explaining that before Moore there were no free standing sculptures. They were either on a pedestal in the middle of a square and were mostly commemorative or were placed in front of a wall and were supposed to be looked at from only one side

Also as one of Moore’s contemporaries, sculptor William Tuckers, claimed, “Moore’s re-discovery or at least re-affirmation for modern art of the horizontal axis has been his most fruitful contribution” to contemporary sculpture.

By the 1960’s Moore had achieved his international recognition. He became well known in the States after his first retrospective outside England organized at the MoMA museum in 1946 and after his sculpture was installed at the Lincoln Centre in 1963-5.

At the same time he did not look like an internationally renowned artist at all.

Roger Berthoud, British journalist and author, who had been Moore’s friend for many years, described him, “With his shortish, stocky physique, ruddy countryman’s complexion, and tweedy taste in clothes, he might have been a well-to-do Yorkshire farmer. He had a lingering accent of his native country. No one could have been further from the popular conception of the artist as Bohemian, as Outsider or as obsessed egocentric than this down-to-earth man with his preference for regular working hours, his extrovert, unpretentious manner, his sometimes slightly squeaky voice, unfinished sentences, and engaging giggle."4

Berthoud also suggested that Moore’s modesty and character as a normal human being was key for others to accept the “abnormality” of the sculptures he was creating, giving them a certain “benefit of the doubt.”5

However, Moore also got his share of criticism earlier in the thirties when he was considered a “key member of the avant-garde” exhibiting with the ‘leading edge’ group. When his sculptures were displayed, they were “so shocking opponents decapitated them and daubed them with paint”.

Later in the forties through sixties, Moore and his art was attacked by young British artists, who echoed a popular art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg promoted the idea of ‘Americaness’ in art with its ‘roughness and originality’ that he found in the American abstract expressionists like Pollack. Greenberg was not a fan of English art in general and Moore’s art in particular. For him ‘Anglo-Saxon’ paintings and sculptures were ‘not ambitious enough.’6 However, Greenberg’s contemptuous review was the only negative voice in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive reception of Moore’s retrospective at MoMA.

And what is more important, by that time Moore’s outdoor sculptures started to be appreciated by public and collectors all over the world, including the US. The artist’s name was on the top of the list of “masters of modern sculpture” proposed by the anonymous donor for the Putnam Memorial Collection.7

Moore was invited to Princeton in 1968 when he was visiting Columbia University to receive an honorary degree. The maquette of Oval with Points was selected unanimously by the Putman Committee and is part of the collection of Princeton University Art Museum.

The most well known theory about this work has been that the sculpture was based on an elephant skull. The skull was presented to Moore by his friends, biologist Sir Julian Huxley and his wife, who brought it from East Africa.8 “Although it may look like a donut, the inspiration for the work is thought to be an elephant skull given to Moore by the scientist Sir Julian Huxley. Moore was fascinated by the skull's tunnels and cavities, and, Huxley notes in his memoir, Moore "created several pieces of sculpture bearing the unmistakable stamp of his genius fused with an evocation of the skull's construction.”9

The Huxleys most likely knew about Moore’s fascination with bones and skulls. Moore once explained why he was ‘obsessed’ with bones, ‘…because the bone is the inner structure of all living forms. It’s as though you have something trying to make itself come to a shape from inside itself.”10

And, yes, Moore produced 35 etchings inspired by the elephant scull. He also published the Elephant Skull album in 1970.11 However, he never mentioned the connection between Oval with Points and elephant skull while showing the intermediate plaster model to Kelleher in 1969, when Kelleher visited Moore to see the model.12

There is another explanation to Moore’s inspiration to create this sculpture. Moore’s idea of ‘almost touching’ forms can be traced to the 1940s, when he made a drawing below now in the possession of the Grafische Sammlung Albertina museum in Vienna.

Moore 7

In the bottom right corner one can clearly observe an oval with points as the figure 8 placed horizontally with a gap between the points. In the description of this drawing in the Henry Moore artwork catalogue (available online) there is a reference to the sculpture Oval with Points created in 1968-70, the time when it was commissioned by Princeton.

“….The subject of points in Moore's sculpture reappeared in Spindle Piece 1968-69 (LH 592) and Oval with Points 1968-70 (LH 596), for which the sketch lower centre right - like a figure 8 turned on its side - is the earliest reference.”

Moore -3

Moore 2

If we take the photo of the small maquette of the Oval with Points from Moore's studio and turn it horizontally we can see that the earlier drawing was the first visual reference to the Oval with Points.

When talking about the idea for the pointed forms not touching, Moore indicated that the main inspiration for him was Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam c 1511-1520 in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The palpable energy and tension experienced in anticipation of Adam’s extended finger being touched and coming to life seems to have had a profound impact on Moore. In 1964, Moore had observed that “Michelangelo as an individual he was an absolute superman. Even before I became a student I’d taken a peculiar obsessive interest in him”

Ann Garrould, Moore’s niece, recalled Moore’s comment on “the charge of electricity which seemed to flow between the two fingers.” She and Moore were talking about pointed forms while visiting the Sistine Chapel in 1952 and looking at the Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Moore turned to her and said: “It’s a bit like what I intended in a sculpture I did just before the war – creating a sense of tension.” Moore was referring to the sculpture Three Points that he created in 1940, where three points were almost touching, a sculpture that generated many discussions and numerous art historical references.

However, there was never one source of inspiration for Moore when he created a work of art. In addition to Michelangelo, the works of Picasso and Giacometti have been often mentioned, as well as a painting of Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters created by an anonymous French artist from the late 16th century.

Moore explained his composition and his inspiration in the following way, “In 1940 I made a sculpture with three points (the lead version of Three Points), because this pointing has an emotional or physical action in it where things are just about to touch but don’t. There is some anticipation of this action. Michelangelo used the same theme in his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, of God creating Adam, in which the forefinger of God’s hand is just about to touch and give life to Adam. It’s also like the points in the sparking plug of a car, where the spark has to jump across the gap between the points. There is a very beautiful early French painting (Gabrielle d’Estrées with her sister in the bath), where one sister is just about to touch the nipple of the other. I used this sense of anticipation first in the Three Points of 1940, but there are other, later works where one form is nearly making contact with the other. It is very important that the points do not actually touch. There has to be a gap.”

A gap between the points was essential to Moore. It was part of the composition. After the Moore sculpture Three Points became part of the collection at Tate Museum in 1978, Richard Cavosoressi, a Tate’s research assistant, visited Moore two years later to discuss the sculpture. Moore underlined that it was very important to make sure that the points don’t touch. Moore stated that sometimes as a result of a fault in the casting they do touch. It turned out that the sculpture at Tate was the one with the touched points, and Tate sent the sculpture back to Moore so he would separate them himself. Calvocoressi also said that Moore ‘used the analogy of the sparking plug’ to convey ‘a sense of anticipation and anxiety.’ In the Oval with Points Moore continued to express his fascination with the pointed forms that almost touch, creating a sculpture that is full of energy, mystery, mastery and anticipation.

To conclude, Moore’s sculpture was not inspired solely by the elephant scull but rather by a variety of sources. Whether it was female breasts or the spark plugs of cars or Michelangelo’s fresco, sculptures with pointed, almost-touching forms as in Oval with Points continue to inspire artists and designers.

While working on this research I came across Marja Germans Gard '93 with Ph.D. in clinical psychology, who has also been be a successful jewellery designer. Marja, a Princeton alumna, would pass Oval with Points every day while on campus. This sculpture together with the natural cave formation along the coast of Portugal had inspired her to create the MOORE/MOURA collection featuring earrings, necklace, bracelets and rings.

Moore 30487

I obtained this ring from that collection as a permanent reminder of the genius of Henry Moore, of Princeton University and its extraordinary collection of the twenties century sculptures, of this project for Princetoniana Committee, and of the fact that everything and everybody is connected in the world in one way or the other.

Moore 1-2


1Hedgecoe, 98. p. 52

2Hedgecoe, 1998

3Gombrich, 1995

4Berthoud, 1987

5Berthoud, p xiii


7Kelleher, 1982

8Kelleher, 71

9Sheppard, 1995

10Hedgecoe, 1998

11Cox & Higham, p. 41

12Kelleher, 1982


Berthoud, Roger (1987) The Life of Henry Moore, 2nd edition, Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited; London, UK (p.p. xiii)

Correia, Alice; Critical Voices: Artists’ Responses to Moore’s Gift to Tate in 1967

Cox, Sylvia and Higham, Hannah; 2020; Henry Moore Foundation: Henry Moore Studios and Gardens; Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd; London, UK (p. 41)

Gombrich, Ernst (1995) The Story of Art, 16th edition, Phaidon Press Inc. New York, NY (p. 585)

Hedgecoe, John, 1998, A Monumental Vision: The Sculpture of Henry Moore, Collins & Brown Limited, London House, London, UK (p.p. 22, 32, 52)

Kelleher, Patrick J, 1982; Living With Modern Sculpture: The John B. Putnam, Jr., Memorial Collection Princeton University; The Art Museum Princeton, Princeton University, New Jersey. (p 71, 68)

Mar, Courtney J, A sincere academic modern’: Clement Greenberg on Henry Moore

Sheppard, Jennifer; 1995; Strolling Among Sculpture on Campus

Interview with Mary Moore


I would like to thank the staff at the Henry Moore Foundation and especially Archivist Emma Stower for providing me with invaluable references for my research.

Works by Henry Moore reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

All images Ⓒ Marina Murvanidze Mitchell *98, 2022